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Legally Declared Dead
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by Jay Seaver

"Nowhere near a perfect crime and that may just be the point."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Steve Yuen Kim-Wai's "Legally Declared Dead" is one of those thrillers that is chock-full of ridiculous things and occasionally looks like there Kwai could have put in more, if he'd felt like it, but he's got just enough sense to recognize where the point of diminishing returns is. It's a nutty movie, and probably a B-movie under most conditions, but it got to hit screens in Hong Kong and the genre festival circuit when neither China nor the West was releasing much of anything. It's more than enough fun for those circumstances and will probably hold up well enough afterward.

It starts by introducing Yip Wing-Shun (Carlos Chan Ka-Lok), a young salesman for an insurance brokerage who endeavors to be honest but frequently finds himself awkwardly explaining that he is only a middle-man. He's requested for an on-site meeting by Chu Chung-Tak (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), who shows up gruff and barely talks to Wing-Shun, leading him through the rickety house in the New Territories until they come upon Chu's son hanging from the ceiling. It is obviously fishy as hell - in Hong Kong, insurance can pay out for a suicide after thirteen months, Chu has gambling debts, and it is just one week past that - but the investigating detective (Fire Lee Ka-Wing) can't prove anything. It gets under Wing-Shun's skin, in part because his brother committed suicide when they were the boy's age, so he sets out to make sure that Chu's wife Shum Chi-Ling (Karena Lam Ka-Yan) isn't the next victim. Girlfriend Man Wai-Yee (Kathy Yuen Ka-Yee), a psychology grad student, says this probably isn't healthy, but her thesis advisor Kam Ching-Sek (Kiu Kai-Chi) is eager to prove a point about the "criminal personality".

There's a twist or two coming up later, but Yuen sets it up in such a way that the main one is not only revealed fairly early, but Wing-Shun looks kind of dumb for missing . That's usually frustrating, but it works here because, without getting too heavy-handed about it, Yuen has a pretty reasonable idea of how regular people actually interact with crime - most criminals are pretty dumb, but most would-be amateur sleuths aren't as clever as they think, and the people for whom this is their job (whether insurance company, detective, or gangster) are punching a clock and know that it's not cost-effective to chase down every hunch. That there are no criminal masterminds or super-sleuths doesn't necessarily lead to arch, Coen-like absurdity, but it doesn't lead to a clever game of cat-and-mouse either - some people may be awful and some may care too much, but Yuen does a smart job of putting things in a place where one doesn't feel disappointed when a character doesn't do the smart or logical thing in a situation.

The fact of this often has the movie feeling like it's a bit upside-down. Wing-Shun is obviously the protagonist, but it's not surprising that Anthony Wong and Karena Lam get billed first; they're more established stars and they play more colorful characters. The fun thing about what Wong and Lam are up to is that, given their profile and the genre and the billing, the viewer is likely to be on the lookout for a late dropping of the mask, but Yuen has them around with no reason to pretend enough that the audience has to be ready to accept them at face value and see how much life gets breathed into the pair. This doesn't make Carlos Chan boring in comparison; he and Yuen nail how Yip Wing-Shun is earnest and righteous in his quest despite doggedly barking up the wrong tree to the point where it's almost funny, but the fact that he never actually crosses that line is what makes in poignant.

Yuen is at his best when he keeps things sharp - there's a sequence where Catherine Chow Ka-Yee appears as the woman who sold Chi-Ling and Chung-Tak their original insurance policy that sleekly shows her being somewhat amoral without making her a villain, and aside from being a nifty and useful scene on its own, it does a great job of defining Wing-Shun as not that sort of person, for better or worse. Things are less steady when Yuen goes for broader horror-movie villainy; there is often fun in the last stretch, but one can see a character ping-ponging between being clever on the one hand and too nutty or impulsive to succeed on the other several times a scene.

It leads to a capper that is as split as the rest of the movie - on one side, stark in how a character is portrayed as destroyed by the mess they wandered into, but on the other, making one want to rewind to see if a character last seen thirty seconds earlier lived, died, or had some sort of massive change of heart which is understandable if not necessarily warranted. But, then, how else should it end? "Legally Declared Dead" is a jumble of things that play as 75% "life is jumbled and messy" and 25% "this stretches belief", and maybe it just means that it fits these times.

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originally posted: 09/06/20 14:38:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2020 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Kim-Wai Yuen

Written by
  Kim-Wai Yuen

  Anthony Chau-Sang Wong
  Kar Yan Lam
  Carlos Chan
  Kai Chi Liu
  Yee Tong

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